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Trump’s tepid, halfhearted endorsement of Covid-19 vaccines, explained

Trump’s base is remarkably vaccine-hesitant, so what he says about vaccination matters.

Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up sign through the window of his car.
Trump is driven through New York City on March 9.
James Devaney/GC Images

Former President Donald Trump endorsed getting a Covid-19 vaccine during his most recent Fox News interview — kind of.

In classic Trump style, he tried to have it both ways in response to Maria Bartiromo’s question about whether he would advise viewers to get one.

“I would recommend it, and I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it, and a lot of those people voted for me, frankly,” he said during the Tuesday phone interview. “It is a great vaccine. It is a safe vaccine and it is something that works.”

But Trump’s endorsement was not unequivocal. Immediately after recommending his supporters get vaccinated, Trump offered an apologia for those who refuse, saying, “we have our freedoms, and we have to live by that. And I agree with that also.”

Trump’s comments marked only the second time he publicly endorsed the coronavirus vaccine since the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration in December. The first came during his CPAC speech on February 28 when he did so in an even more perfunctory way in the middle of attacking President Joe Biden.

“He [Biden] got his vaccine. He forgot. It shows you how unpainful all that vaccine shot is. So, everybody, go get your shot,” Trump said. “He forgot, so it wasn’t very traumatic obviously, but he got his shot, and it’s good that he got his shot.”

There’s a big reason Trump’s comments about coronavirus vaccines matter. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released last week found that 47 percent of Trump supporters say they won’t get vaccinated. Other polls have shown that up to 57 percent of Republican men are vaccine hesitant, meaning Trump’s base is more vaccine hesitant than any other group in America. Given that backdrop, Trump received a measure of praise for his Fox News comments from people who are usually critical of him — the hope being that perhaps it persuaded some people to get the jab.

And since scientists estimate that somewhere between 70 and 85 percent of American adults need to be vaccinated for the country to achieve herd immunity and defeat the spread of the coronavirus, Trump using his platform as the country’s most popular Republican to dissuade doubt his supporters have could affect positive change. It could help the country open schools and businesses sooner, and save lives by bringing the pandemic to a swifter conclusion.

Yet Trump is still trying to have it both ways.

Trump wants credit for the very vaccines he can’t bring himself to unequivocally endorse

The irony is Trump is refusing to speak out forcefully on behalf of coronavirus vaccines at the same time he’s trying to take credit for their very existence.

“I hope everyone remembers when they’re getting the Covid-19 (often referred to as the China Virus) Vaccine, that if I wasn’t President, you wouldn’t be getting that beautiful ‘shot’ for 5 years, at best, and probably wouldn’t be getting it at all,” Trump claimed earlier this month in one of his tweet-like statements. “I hope everyone remembers!”

Trump, however, has a long history of denigrating vaccines. Before he ran for president in 2015 and then also on the campaign trail, he repeatedly tried to link childhood vaccines with autism, even though the science is clear that there is no link.

Then, as the coronavirus spread across the country last spring and summer, Trump repeatedly suggested a vaccine wouldn’t be necessary to end the pandemic because the virus would “probably go away by itself.”

When the first coronavirus vaccine received emergency authorization from the FDA in December, Trump cited the fact he recently had Covid-19 as a reason he wouldn’t immediately get vaccinated himself. Only recently did we learn that Trump and his wife Melania were secretly vaccinated in January before they left the White House.

The country’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, described Trump’s decision to get vaccinated without informing the public — one that stands in contrast to former Vice President Mike Pence, Vice President Kamala Harris, and President Biden, all of whom got a vaccine shot live on camera — as a “lost opportunity.”

“That would have been an extraordinarily good opportunity to get a signal to the people who would clearly have listened to him the way they listen to him in many other ways,” Fauci said earlier this month on CNN. “It was unfortunately a lost opportunity because he could have gotten a lot of people who are hesitant about getting vaccinated, vaccinated. I’m sorry he didn’t do that.”

Trump also was the only ex-president not to take part in a recent ad touting the personal and social benefits of getting vaccinated. But while George W. Bush-era Republicans may be generally inclined to accept the conclusions of medical science, the Trump-era GOP has drifted into conspiracy land.

It’s not just Trump. The GOP has a vaccine problem.

Trump’s vaccine hesitancy is far from unique among prominent Republicans. Despite having shots available to them, about 25 percent of the members of the House of Representatives haven’t been vaccinated, for instance, and the Washington Post reports that the holdouts seem to be mostly if not all Republicans.

Meanwhile, the most-watched conservative TV host — Tucker Carlson — has made vaccine skepticism a major theme of his recent Fox News shows. On Monday, Carlson suggested getting a vaccine might not be necessary; he politicized the issue, saying “the administration would like you to take this vaccine. Joe Biden told you last week if you don’t, you can’t celebrate the Fourth of July.”

Given this backdrop, it’s not surprising that some of Trump’s most fervent supporters are in disbelief about his endorsement of vaccines, as tepid as it may have been. As Ewan Palmer detailed for Newsweek, QAnon adherents with large followings on Telegram responded to his Fox News comments with conspiracy theories that the man on the phone with Bartiromo wasn’t really Trump or was speaking in code.

“Vaccines = arrests. Learn the language, it could be a matter of life and death. Just say no to the jab,” one wrote.

QAnon adherents likely won’t be persuaded by Trump telling them the truth — that the coronavirus vaccines available in the US are safe and effective and can bring the pandemic to an end only if the vast majority of American adults get one — but presumably some segment of his supporters who are currently skeptical about the vaccine could be.

So while it’s good that Trump did the bare minimum and endorsed the coronavirus vaccines, there’s a lot more he could do.

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